The effective altruism (EA) movement needs several career paths which can absorb a large number of people (as described in this recent EA forum post), that have clear paths to impact and are highly regarded by the community. We also believe that having support for those career paths can lead to EA having a bigger tent and generally allowing healthier community norms.
We believe that the for-profit career path done right can be one of those, as it can definitely absorb a lot of people and has many possible paths to impact as we will discuss below. However, for-profit careers are no longer so highly regarded in EA as they were in the past.
The goal of this post is to provide some inspiration to people in the private sector on possible ways to make a difference and support them on their journey to maximize their impact.
Our views on the best way to have an impact as an EA working in the private sector are bound to evolve as we get more data, however we believe the paths described below represent a good starting point for discussion.
Paths to impact
The diagram below shows several paths to impact available to EAs working in the private sector.
Let's briefly review each of them from left to right.
This path is similar to the traditional earning to give, where part of one’s salary is donated to an effective organization. Strictly speaking, earning to give requires people to maximize their income and donate as much as possible, however according to the EA survey it seems much more common to donate a smaller portion like 10% and we believe that this can be done in any job, not only very high paying ones. Of course more is better, but more importantly something is better than nothing and it seems reasonable for people to start small and then increase over time.
Small donors might have a competitive advantage when it comes to funding new projects, which are still too small to attract bigger donors and would not take off otherwise. HIP is a good example, as half of our seed funding came from a private donor. The same holds true for many charities out of the Charity Entrepreneurship incubation program and seems likely to be true in a number of cause areas for smaller charities.
We don’t see money and donations as the end game but more as a starting point, a stepping stone in the journey to increasing our impact.
Professionals usually learn a range of skills in their job, skills that can be useful for EA organizations like management, communication, web development, how to scale an organization, etc. In fact many of the most reported gaps needed are directly connected to skills that are often built in the private sector. Therefore another way to contribute is by using our time and skills effectively, ranging from volunteering a few hours a week as an advisor or pro-bono worker in a specific domain, up to a more substantial side project and potentially shifting your career to an EA-aligned job. Later stage professionals who bring many of these skills to the table can benefit from volunteering as a stepping stone for a career shift, allowing people to “try before buying”, building credentials before making the jump and getting the psychological stamp of approval that indeed they are good enough to apply for an EA job. We experienced that in several occasions both with people volunteering directly for HIP or other EAR organizations
In EA using your influence is usually used in the context of influencing a government or policies. As an employee you also have influence over your company and this influence can be converted to impact in a few different ways.
The first path is money again, this time the company’s money instead of your personal money. From relatively simple initiatives like organizing fundraising events in your organization and encouraging your colleagues to donate, to introducing donation matching, or more ambitious ones like influencing the CSR budget or convincing the company to donate part of their revenue, similarly to what One For the Planet is doing. A company's budget is orders of magnitude bigger than that of an individual and by shifting a tiny fraction of it, we can have a big impact indeed. As a concrete and personal example, by organizing fundraising events in my previous company I could increase my personal donations by a factor of 5x or so.
The second path to impact is time and skills, as before we are talking about company time and not personal time. Some companies offer the possibility to work a certain number of hours per week on pro-bono projects and we can use this opportunity to work on effective projects and/or encourage our colleagues to do the same. The interesting aspect is again leverage, by getting 10 colleagues to volunteer their time, you can multiply your impact by a factor of 10. If no such program is available in your company, you can maybe work toward establishing something similar or have your company provide services for free to effective charities.
Another way to use influence is to nudge your company in having a better positive impact through their core business. We can think of promoting safe AI development in an AI company, or reducing the CO2 emissions of your business, pushing for impactful projects in a consulting firm or advising your clients in a way that increases impact. This is probably the hardest proposition, a lot depends on the company culture and might require time and a position of influence within the company, but it seems also a promising path to impact.
A path to impact we couldn’t fit in our little diagram yet is community building in a professional setting (after all as the saying goes all models are wrong, but some of them are useful). Another way to use your time and influence is to create a workplace or professional group, this can have multiple benefits. On one hand community building has value in itself, by helping keeping people engaged and avoiding value drift, on the other it seems helpful to have a working group to tackle the paths mentioned above. We are currently helping incubate EA workplace and professional groups, so if this is something that might interest you, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.
The EA community as a whole will always be bigger than the number of EA jobs and it is quite likely that a large number of EAs will be in the private sector, either because this is the way they decided to have an impact or because they are just starting their EA journey. Especially if we want to grow the community without causing frustration of not knowing how to contribute, it is important to have several high absorption careers, with clear paths to impact and which are highly regarded by the community. We believe that taking this broader view and considering the different paths to impact explained above, the for-profit career path can be one of those.
We would love to see more EAs taking the initiative and doing something, regardless of whether this is the single most impactful thing they could do in the world, and so avoiding paralysis by analysis. We are all on a journey to increase our impact and most probably the first thing we do won’t be the most impactful we will ever do, and that is ok. As our knowledge and experience increase, so will our impact, it would be strange otherwise. We are all on a journey, and it is important to start somewhere.
If you are working in the private sector and want to increase your impact, don’t hesitate to reach out! We would love to support you the best we can.